Putting up the numbers drivers don't want to see

Rising gas prices keep service station workers busy updating the signs.

August 17, 2005|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

When Jeff Dolch goes out to change the gas price sign at his BP Amoco station, drivers passing by often roll down the window to ask if the numbers are going up or down. Lately, the answer is always the same: Prices are rising.

"I wear a bulletproof vest," Dolch joked yesterday.

The gas price sign has been around for generations, calling drivers off the road to fill up their tanks for $1, then $2 and now more than $2.50 a gallon. And as the summer's volatile gas prices continue to rise, station owners such as Dolch are changing the signs more often, posting the higher numbers that make many motorists cringe.

Gas prices in Maryland are 70 cents a gallon higher than they were this time last year, said Ragina Averella, a spokeswoman at AAA Mid-Atlantic. Maryland gas prices jumped 10 cents over the weekend, and another 5 cents by yesterday, Averella said.

Yesterday's average gas price was $2.58 in Maryland and $2.52 nationwide, she said.

Dolch, who owns the BP Amoco station at St. Paul Street and Mount Royal Avenue in Baltimore, already has raised his price six times this month - once by 6 cents a gallon. That compares with five price changes at his station in May and five in June.

Last month, his prices changed seven times, but some of those were decreases, he said.

Falling prices, however, are a distant memory and Dolch said his customers are growing more concerned.

"I think people are worried," he said. "How far is it going to go?"

Dolch said his business has not decreased in response to the higher price. But 40 percent of consumers will switch the station they use for a 3-cent-per-gallon savings, according to a 2002 study by the National Association of Convenience Stores.

Between losing customers and fees gas stations must pay to the credit-card companies for their services, retailers aren't benefiting from the high gas prices, said Jeff Lenard, a spokesman for the association. He added that retailers are receiving an inordinate amount of abuse - from customers grumbling at the pump and inside the stores to gasoline theft - for the higher prices.

"I don't think anybody in the industry is happy by these high prices," Lenard said, "least of all those guys changing the signs."

Bob Valentin had to report to work last weekend just to deliver the bad news to his customers: Gas prices at his station had gone up, and, metal pole in hand, Valentin had to change the numbers on the sign.

"It's a pain," Valentin said. "Plus, everybody looks at you like you're the bad guy."

Valentin, who owns the Sunoco station at Loch Raven Boulevard and Taylor Avenue near Towson, said he typically gets an order from corporate headquarters to change the price of gas about two to three times a week. And the higher the price at the pump, the less money the gas station makes, he said.

"Seems like almost every day you get an increase," Valentin said. "It's terrible."

The gas price volatility comes from several factors, including uncertainty about what the hurricane season and the winter will bring, said Rayola Dougher, manager of energy market issues for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group.

"The line between supply and demand is very thin," Dougher said, "and then you add these uncertainties on top of it, and it does create an awful lot of volatility in the marketplace."

There was a time when Peggy Ritter would only have to change the numbers on the gas-price sign outside the Royal Farms store on 41st Street in Hampden in North Baltimore about once a month. But last week, she ventured into the heat three times to raise the prices.

It's a five-minute interruption to her day, but one that she said has been coming more often.

"Hopefully, one of these days, they'll get us a digital [sign]," said Ritter, who manages the Hampden store.

With gas prices changing so frequently, more gas stations are buying electronic price signs from Lightcraft Electronic Displays Corp. in Denison, Texas, said the company's manager, Rhonda Davis.

It simplifies the task of changing the numbers, Davis said. Some of the older, manual signs aren't even equipped to put a number 2 or 3 in the dollar slot, she said.

"The actual changing of the numbers is easier because we can do it remotely," Davis said. "And they don't have to climb up and down ladders."

But Lenard of the National Association of Convenience Stores said changing to digital signs is more of a long-term strategy than a knee-jerk reaction to high prices, something stations are likely to do as they look at overall capital improvements such as adding new gasoline dispensers.

The advantage of digital signs, though, is that gas prices can be changed from inside the store - or even from corporate headquarters - so prices can be changed faster and station owners can maximize how they use their employees, Lenard said.

Then, of course, there's the more obvious advantage.

"I can see the one major advantage to going to electronic signs right now," Lenard said, "is no one wants to be that guy on the ladder putting up the new higher price."

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